Wednesday, December 12, 2012

TBLA(extra): it's not just about "choice"

This is an 'excursus' to the TBLA sequence; it most naturally belongs at the end, but it's on my mind. I wanted to say a bit more about the gay marriage debate going on at the moment. My views are still evolving, and I want to make explicit what my concern is about the particular nature of the present conversation. As it is a 'work-in-progress' it's still quite clunky, especially in the reliance on barbarous acronyms - sorry.

Our society is deeply confused about sexuality, and this leads into so many other problems. I want to indicate a broad framework for how I see what is happening, and introduce two barbarous acronyms: 'PEG', standing for 'personal enjoyment and growth', and 'PROC', standing for 'procreation and raising of children'. Much of the confusion about sexuality in our culture stems, I believe, from a lack of discrimination between those two types of relationship, and to try and apply the rules, regulations and expectations with regard to the one straight on to the other, without regard to the differences inherent between them.

Partly this is a fact of history. The raising of children is something in which we as human beings biologically, and any community seeking to sustain itself socially, have a very great and serious interest. It is because of this that sexuality has always been tightly regulated. If children are raised poorly then they do not flourish, they cause havoc, and society suffers. Similarly, on questions of sexual behaviour, something like adultery can cause extreme violence between the adults, causing the breach of the peace and everything up to and including a community breakdown or war – think of Helen of Troy. So the dominant form and understanding of sexuality has been the PROC form. This is what lies behind all the 'traditional' marriage values, which regulate the expression of sexuality, which are strict about legitimacy, and which emphasise that rightly-ordered sexuality is principally about procreation. This is the official Roman Catholic teaching for example – so any form of sexuality which is not open to procreation is inherently sinful.

Yet this is a reductive and, I would argue, non-Scriptural view of human sexuality. Human beings do not engage with each other sexually purely for the purposes of procreation, but also for the purposes of human bonding and deepening of relationships – see the Song of Songs for the clearest Biblical expression of this. This, I believe, has always been the case. For example, ponder the fact that, unlike other primates, the human female does not overtly signal when she is fertile, and she engages in sexual behaviour even when she is not fertile. Human sexuality is expressed in all sorts of contexts and for all sorts of reasons, and this, I believe, underlies the PEG form of sexuality. Our relationships enable us to grow as human beings, and, sometimes, this involves engaging with another person as profoundly as a sexual relationship makes possible.

The spiritual truth is, I believe, that the PROC relationships are called to include the PEG elements as well. This is how the Church of England understands marriage, and that is why the preamble for weddings is written in the way that it is. The trouble with our present society is that, in responding to things like the development of (generally!) reliable contraceptive technology, and embracing all the ideas around personal growth and so on – 'the sixties' as popularly understood – we have allowed such PEG relationships to eclipse our understanding of PROC relationships. This has had terrible consequences. Society has had a stake in PROC relationships for a very good reason; how children are raised is tremendously important, and a stable and loving home environment is an overwhelmingly strong indicator of psychological health in children, and their flourishing in later life. Sadly, because we have elevated PEG relationships into an idol, we have a culture that practices serial monogamy and easy divorce – perfectly understandable and acceptable from a PEG point of view, but anathema to the PROC.

This is why I'm not convinced that there can be such a thing as gay marriage – it is inherently non-procreative, and therefore will always be fundamentally a PEG, not a PROC – and it is PROC-including-PEG that is holy matrimony, as I understand it. (I'm ignoring, for now, the difficult questions around adoption etc, as 'hard cases make bad law'.) Both PEG and PROC can, I believe, be vehicles of holiness, but in different ways. A PEG can work 'under its own steam', because the momentum of personal growth and discovery is so strong. With a PROC it is different – even if the PROC would normally start out as a PEG. I believe that a promise of commitment, such as the vows, open up a space wherein we can learn to become more truly human, one with another. When this is simply between two people, that can be wonderful and life-enhancing purely in its own terms (that is how I understand civil partnership). Where this happens in a procreative context, then God is doing something even more remarkable through it, and it is more essential that the couple preserve the union (and it is more God's will).

The trouble is that much of this discussion is about semantics - what is meant by a particular word. We're in an environment where previously-held assumptions have broken down, and we're still working out what to do with our present situation. What most troubles me about Cameron's agenda is that he is elevating 'choice' to be the key criterion in working out whether gay marriage is the right way forward or not. To my mind that misses some of the most important elements of what has made marriage be what it is in our society - that is, it is an institution which subordinates individual choice to a wider social and human good. That's what I fear is being recklessly cast aside in his haste to appear acceptable to progressive opinion. We must not make 'choice' into an idol - if we do then we are simply joining in with our culture's worship of Mammon and treating everything in our human and social life as if it is a product in our supermarket for our discriminating delectation. Marriage is more important than this.

7 comments:

  1. Rev. Sam: marriage isn't ever "PEG"; it's based on a survival instinct. Human beings couple up for protection and real, valuable support, not "personal enjoyment and growth." Perhaps you haven't ever been single for a long time? I think you would have a different idea about this if you had spent many years trying to live life on your own.

    It's not a "hard case making bad law" when widows and widowers - or divorcees - remarry; it's an everyday occurrence. It's encouraged and celebrated; everybody understands that couples are better off, generally, than singles.

    Heterosexuals marry, having no intention of ever having children - and this is not necessarily "selfish" but often the reverse. I've known quite a few people in A.A. who've done just this; they marry, having explicitly decided NOT to have children. They had terrible childhoods themselves, or they didn't want to pass on their crazy genes, or didn't feel they could possibly be good parents - or for whatever reason. They marry for companionship and protection and support, exactly because "it is not good for the man to be alone."

    Add up all these "hard cases" - and you've got quite a large group of people, all of whom marry - and can marry - for a wide variety of reasons. The urge to find a companion and to face life together is very strong; I've met very, very few people who don't have it. (Those would be the "hard cases," in my view!) "At last this is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh" is speaking to something extremely deep in the human psyche and emotions.

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  2. (This is, of course, not to say that I don't praise and exalt PROC marriage! I do, absolutely; it's a marvelous thing, worthy of the very highest regard we can give it. It should - and does already! - have "pride of place" among relationships. They should be praised and highly exalted forever.

    I don't know why people think extending marriage to another small group of people - who, yes, may adopt or have children from previous marriages - who want to marry for support and companionship and protection (as many, many people do already) will somehow ruin the regard people have for procreative marriages! Everybody's already aware of how important they are.)

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  3. Hi bls - I don't think there is an incompatibility between PEG and 'survival instinct' - in fact, I think the former is precisely how the latter expresses itself; that is, all the enjoyment of a 'PEG' is the way in which the biological processes support reproduction and so on.
    My comment about hard cases was referencing gay adoption (which I'm broadly in favour of) because I think the argument is now about what is to be counted as normative - from which we can get to the exceptions - rather than start with the exceptions and then start to work out what is normative. I'm going to go through this in a fair bit more detail as the TBLA sequence opens out in the next few posts.
    Otherwise I don't think you're disagreeing with me. The issue as I understand it isn't about the capacity for (to use more neutral terms) holy long-term pair bonding between whoever wishes to enter into that state - which I'm all in favour of, of all flavours and none - but about whether that is a sufficient 'grammar' for understanding everything that makes 'marriage' into marriage.
    I do disagree on one count though - I don't think 'everybody's already aware of how important they are'...

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  4. Sam: people who don't want children CAN marry, and the grammar is "marriage." There is, literally, no difference whatever between the marriages of elderly couples and those who are planning families; they are exactly the same in law and in fact.

    Are the elderly couple somehow being rewarded for their heterosexuality? I mean, nobody asks them if they've ever had children; they just get married, mostly so that they can have somebody on their team to support them. This is on the conscious level, and not merely an urge mysteriously "expressed."

    Are you trying to argue that same-sex pairings are "icons of marriage" in some way? Isn't "Holy Matrimony" enough, at least in the church? That really does express what you're saying here.

    The question is: why the aversion to exceptions to the "rule"? And on what basis does one discriminate, if some gay couples have children - and of course infertile heterosexual couples (another exception to your "rules") also adopt - and if some heterosexuals don't? Do you only issue the marriage license once the kids appear?

    I think you're not seeing the two Genesis stories for what they are; clearly the writers and editors of the Bible recognized that there are two separate-although-often-intertwined reasons for the institution of marriage. One is basic survival, and one is reproduction. Most of the time they manifest together - but some of the time they don't. What's hard about this?

    I'm afraid you're doing a Dawkins here; you're speaking as if people are simply genes that want to "express" themselves - but you're not speaking to the actual human experience. Childless couples - and singles, even - can and always have contributed to the good of society. I took care of my aged parents before they died, for instance - as many gay people have.

    Perhaps if people are NOT aware of how important PROC marriages are - the thing to do is to exalt them in particular; I really don't think you'll get an argument - at least, not in a few years, after all this noise has settled down - that they shouldn't have "pride of place" among relationships. We're not stupid, you know.

    There's really no reason to deny same-sex couples civil marriage - would making all secular marriages into "civil unions" be a solution, in your estimation? - when same-sex couples are simply doing what everybody else does.

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  5. From Sam W on Facebook:
    "Really hoping none of your other "female primate" friends have read that comment or you could be in trouble! Sadly sex for recreation often does not bring enjoyment and growth but shame and regret. I've explained it to youth groups like the making of a 'horcrux'(Harry potter). ' Sex without commitment, intention or love will tear into your soul. I think it's naive to separate PEG and PROC marriages and expect the relationships to work.
    My understanding of God is as the source of love (agape, philos & eros) and that we are made in His image. If we have God's image within us,that may mean that all of our desire is really only a fragment of our true longing for the fellowship of the Godhead. Holy Matrimony is given to us to help build relationships that reflect the Godhead and heaven. I don't think David Cameron or any other politician can redefine the religious meaning of it at all. (although he should feel free to say anything he likes about civil processes!) You are right Sam , I don't think you can separate PROC (horrible acronym Sam!) and PEG. Because they are interwoven, as part of being married and being made in Gods image. PROC - playing a role in pro-creation. PEG - the capacity to express love, joy and desire for the other. This is how I've understood marriage to be . Tiny glimpses of a foretaste of heaven, of union with God. The pleasure and intimacy of the marriage bed are poor reflections of the ecstasy of heaven and union within God. Not sure what the other primates might say though

    So I think I'm agreeing with you, but I really don't want to! I'd be grateful if someone could argue me out of my corner into a slightly more liberal position."

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  6. bls - I think your last comment is deserving of a post-length reply :)

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  7. Sam! I meant "opposite sex pairings" in my comment above!

    Sorry, that kind of makes a big difference! Here is what I meant: in the church, "Holy Matrimony" is about two opposite-sex people coming together for marriage. There IS a whole "Creation" theology you could bring to this - which in fact is not very strongly emphasized in the marriage rite, as far as I can see. Perhaps the 1662 is different; I'll have to take a look.

    To me, this is indeed worthy of special emphasis! The couple has within them the potential for new life - it's extraordinary! - and this is, surely, one of the primary reasons heterosexuals marry. They are aware already that being married is going to be a lot better for any kids they might have. That's very important.

    In the church, the Incarnation itself is a token to the couple of the beauty of procreation. As you say, "Holy Matrimony" - which in its very name is speaking to procreation! - is and has always been about this power the couple has for creation in themselves, and about the stability and consistent love that children need. And the law has also been heavily concerned with this.

    Same-sex marriage as a civil arrangement won't change any of these things. Children still need stability and love; just about everybody knows this (even if some don't put this knowledge into action), and if they don't: they need to be shown the truth of it. Opposite-sex marriage still comes with the potential for new life. People still need companionship. None of these things will change.

    Perhaps the thing to emphasize is the monumental responsibility that comes with the creation of new life?

    I once saw an interesting comment by a priest on a chat board someplace. He said, basically, that penis-vagina sex was about creating life - and that anybody who wasn't married should be doing something else for sexual relief! As strange as it sounds - it kind of puts things into the proper perspective, to my way of thinking.

    Anyway: if you were arguing that opposite-sex couples were "icons of marriage" I could maybe agree with you - procreative marriage, that is. But then, they are individual human beings, too - and, as I pointed out on the other post, Christianity has always found a way to address the real needs of human beings, with their (and society's) flourishing as an end. I think it still has that power, too....

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